Beware the gag of law

Press or media cannot become truly responsible until it is allowed self-regulation

Mazhar Abbas
A gavel is seen in this file photo. — Reuters
A gavel is seen in this file photo. — Reuters 

Pakistan is at a crossroads, and so are its media. Since independence, the ruling elite has proceeded to restore the feudal style of policies they were used to before it. Therefore, the laws that had been governing the press in the pre-independence era found their way into the body politic of the new independent and sovereign country.

The colonial-style structure of the Constitutional system was based on the 1935 Act and the Independence Act, of 1947, which contained section 18, allowing the continued application of the laws, rules and regulations created before 1947. This corpus included laws such as the Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931, the State (Protection against Disaffection) Act, of 1921, the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1898 and the Penal Code of 1860. As a result, democracy could not take root in Pakistan and as a consequence, the media and journalists continued to receive the same treatment from the government after independence as they were subjected to before.

One such law which has most blatantly been used by successive regimes — civilian or military — against their political opponents and even against journalists is Section 124-A (sedition). In the last 75 years since independence, this particular law has been used against hundreds of political activists, leaders, poets, professors and journalists. Communist leaders, left-wing activists, PPP, MQM, ANP, PML-N and now PTI besides scores of journalists and PFUJ leaders had faced this law. The dilemma is that while Martial Law regimes used it to suppress voices of dissent, the civilian government and Parliament did not even consider repealing all such black laws and as a result democracy became their worst victim.

According to a reputed Supreme Court lawyer Shah Khawar: "Only the word 'offence against the crown" has been replaced with 'offence against the state' in this section.” The British used it against freedom fighters, challenging the colonial power while after independence it had been used against political opponents.

Mian Raza Rabbani, former chairman Senate and a leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in a statement, said his Private Members Bill for deletion of section 124-A was passed by the Senate on July 9, 2021, but the bill was deliberately "lost" in the National Assembly.

In the recent past, the worst victim of this section was veteran politician Javed Hashmi of PML-N, who in a press conference had accused former military ruler General (retd) Pervez Musharraf of subverting the Constitution and in an open letter made an appeal to the army not to follow his illegal and unconstitutional order. He was tried by a special court under section 124-A and sentenced to up to 23 years.

It was also during Musharraf’s era that during the journalist’s movement against the ban on media on November 3, 2007, that a case against PFUJ was registered in Islamabad based on an ‘objectionable pamphlet’ distributed in its protest camp by the members of a political group who visited the camp to express their solidarity with the journalist body. The said FIR was sealed but no one was arrested under the said law though many journalists were arrested during the 88-day movement under other sections like section 144 Cr.Pc, which is commonly used by governments and administrations.

Unfortunately, while making the 18th amendment in the Constitution after 10 months of deliberations following the restoration of democracy in 2008, the government and opposition did not repeal or amend many repressive laws which still exist.

In the last 15 years from 2008 to 2023, some of these black laws were used, including section 124-A, by the governments against their opponents. For example, sitting Federal Minister Khawaja Asif also complained he was still facing a case under this law. “I myself am a victim of 124-A like many of my colleagues,” he said in response to a question regarding the case against former information minister and PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry.

It’s not only the law which had been blatantly used but the way authorities executed its power like the day it had been used against other PTI leaders like Azam Swati and Shahbaz Gill. Ironically, The PTI also used it against PML-N leaders.

One of the worst victims of this law was journalist Arshad Sharif, who faced multiple FIRs, which according to a fact-finding team, were allegedly lodged at the directives of certain intelligence agencies.

Now, even Ammad Yusuf, the news head of a private TV channel, is facing similar charges under section 124-A, which if proven could get him sentenced to life or death. Besides, the case of journalist Shahid Aslam, who was booked by the Federal Investigation Agency, for not revealing the 'source' was also deplorable and an attack on freedom of the press. PFUJ has now announced a protest movement against all such actions from Friday, January 26th and would stage a sit-in outside the Parliament.

PPP had been the worst victim of such laws under General Zia ul Haq while many MQM leaders and workers faced it during both under PPP and PML-N regimes. The August 22, 2016 case against MQM founder Altaf Hussain and nearly 400 others is a classical example. The dilemma is that after registration of the case, it was used against them for ‘political manoeuvring’ rather than ensuring speedy proceedings.

It is worth mentioning here that most of these laws, curbing freedom of the press and expression, were implemented when authorities felt threatened by civil liberties. The Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO) is a self-explanatory law in this regard.

Instead of addressing such repressive laws and repealing them or at least drawing a mechanism to stop their abuse like the Official Secret Act or Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, the government in 2016 introduced yet another black law to check ‘cyber-crime called the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, PECA and extraordinary powers were given to FIA. Like any other law, it had also been used against journalists, rights activists, and all critical voices. What an irony that even someone like Fawad Chaudhry not only backed such a law but, during the PTI government as information minister, also tried to bring a more repressive PECA law.

Since independence, thousands had been detained, and many were killed allegedly in the custody of police or security agencies or in an extra-judicial manner reflecting a lack of will to make Pakistan a democratic state.

Freedom is, and must remain, our cherished destiny because without it the media cannot perform their duties adequately. Press or media cannot become truly responsible until it is allowed self-regulation and independence from executive interference. The journalists and media should also ensure that the government and journalists are adversaries. Those who, for whatever reason or ambitions, joined the government violated the basic norms of this noble profession.

While Fawad also joined the 'elite club of section 124-A' he should not condone but rather regret what he had said in a threatening tone against the families of the members of the Election Commission of Pakistan, who had nothing to do with the PTI's problems. Can't we be more responsible both as politicians and journalists?

The writer is a columnist and analyst for GEO, Jang and The News